We crossed the North Platte on the outskirts of Guernsey, the early morning sun shattering into a thousand dancing orbs on its ageless riffles. The river was milky with snowmelt and running fast over smoothened rocks, and smelled perfectly like the inside of a trout-filled creel. I slowed to a crawl and parked on the bridge so we could scan the water for birds. A common merganser on the far shore added a new species to the trip. Does the river smell like trout or do trout smell like the river? The latter, I decided. Once I discovered my favorite stretch of the North St. Vrain bone-dry from dewatering and the few remaining trout gasping their last in a deep undercut pool. When the flow resumed the river smelled as it always had but the life had gone out of it. I never could return. And here on this bridge I recalled the first shock of icy water after stepping into a stream and for a moment the steering wheel became the cork grip of a nine-foot flyrod. “I am haunted by waters,” wrote Norman McClean, and in that sentiment we are blood brothers indeed.
A narrow dirt road led to a low ridge of piney hills gouged deeply by iron-shod wheels, the dry Wyoming air redolent of sage, pines and some unnameable quality. Three miles from here T. Parker paused long enough on his westward migration to carve his name on a bluff and the cut wherein we stood was a little deeper for his passing. He was here in this exact spot and if our kinship goes no deeper than name only it is more than enough to conjoin us to the trees and stones of this place.
From here the trail entered a new kind of terrain, the high sagebrush desert. Trees grew scarce except for stunted willows lining watercourses and the occasional cottonwood towering above the silvery-green pungent sage. Horizons drifted back to eternity with the Laramie Mountains a snowy bulwark to the southwest, a broad serrated arc bending westward and the historic trails like the modern interstate skirting it as a river takes the path of least resistance. God, but this country was breathtaking and barely more inhabited now than when covered wagons crawled its length. What it must have been like to cross it at their glacial pace and to embody it at least for a short while. Their eyes of course were set at a farther resolve, their concerns beating an early winter to the high passes which they feared, and ours tamer by far.
Their eyes on the short haul, too, the landmarks whose names still resonate: Mormon Ferry, Emigrant Gap, Avenue of Rocks, Prospect Hill, Devil’s Gate, Split Rock. Some were visible for days before and after, and some marked the deaths of many travelers. An estimated one in ten died along the way, an astounding figure. And some landmarks crept up unawares, seeming to rise like mirages from the shimmering sagebrush flats. Independence Rock was the most famous of these, a 128-foot-tall granite boulder measuring more than 27 acres at its base. It was not there one moment and there the next and I braked and whipped into a parking lot surrounding covered tables and restroom facilities and passed on through and looped back on the main highway to where a singletrack cut toward the massive stone.
“There’s gotta be sage thrashers here,” Jim said.
Slow jaunts over dirt roads demand a certain protocol: unsheathe binoculars, roll down windows, stare hard at any movement. For the driver one overriding command supersedes all others: stop on a dime when commanded to. I was ready when the call came and there on its namesake shrub before us was the thrasher, and a Brewer’s blackbird beyond. Two new species.
We spilled from the truck and scattered in several directions. It’s not that we were tired of one other but that each had his own vision to pursue. Mine was the perimeter of the rock itself and the views of the distant Wind River Range with the sleepy Sweetwater River meandering through lush wet meadows. The place had been an oasis for mountain men, emigrants and Mormons alike, and a sort of calendar as well. If they reached the rock by July 4 they knew they were on schedule; if not, they needed to speed up. The rock also served as a register, its surface pocked still with inscriptions dating to the mid-1800s. If T. Parker added his it’s long since disappeared, or else I never found it. I wondered if he made it this far and felt in my bones that he had. He was here and carried on and survived to see the Oregon Territory. He did and that was the end of it.
The urge to scale the stone was irresistible. Circumnavigating its base we watched for likely places to ascend. Unfortunately, Chod also found a prairie rattlesnake sheltered under a narrow cleft and its distinctive buzzing inaugurated a cautionary atmosphere that ultimately kept us grounded. Plus we were no different from the emigrants in having time constraints, with miles to go before nightfall.
The slow purl of the river pulled me as rivers always pull me. I toed the water to become a part of it if only briefly and looked downstream toward the way we’d come. I imagined the trail stretching back to the banks of the Missouri and every single mile a hard slog for people tougher than we can imagine. T. Parker watered his oxen in this river and looked back and saw the miles he’d come but it was nothing compared to what he still faced. The continental divide a few miles farther and all the rivers flowing to the west. Halfway there.
I was reluctant to leave and had to force my feet to move. We codgernauts rejoined at the truck and set off, and soon came to the ice slough where emigrants found ice well into summer, and turning toward Lander left the Oregon Trail behind us. Silently and sadly I bade T. Parker farewell, and vowed that before the end of my days I would follow him all the way to the Promised Land.
(To be continued)